After days filled with Super Bowl parties and Mardi Gras celebrations, the revelry returns to austerity for western Christians on Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent. During this 40-day period of penance, prayer and fasting, Christians strive to imitate Jesus Christ’s actions and prepare for the celebration of Easter as they reflect on his life, death and resurrection. Besides Roman Catholics, other western Christian groups that observe Lent include Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Anglicans.

When Does Lent Start and End? This year, the Lenten season begins Wednesday, Feb. 10, known as Ash Wednesday, and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, on March 26. There are technically 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but Christians were forbidden to fast on Sundays, a day of worship and rest. Eastern Orthodox Christians, who follow a different calendar, begin observing Lent this year on March 14.

How Is Lent Observed? Christians began observing Lent in the fourth century, during which they typically abstained from luxury foods like meat, dairy products and eggs. Today, Roman Catholics refrain from eating meat on Fridays during the Lenten season. Eastern Orthodox Christians, however, follow stricter fasting rules where no meat, eggs or dairy products are allowed. However, fish can be eaten on Palm Sunday, March 20. 

Apart from fasting, Christians can also imitate Christ’s life by voluntarily refraining from so-called bad habits during the 40-day period, such as eating sweets or watching television. Rather than abstain from bad habits, other Lent observers will pick up good ones during the 40-day period, such as volunteering at a local shelter or saying a prayer each day for a loved one, friend or even a stranger.

Why Is Lent So Long? Lent was originally referred to as Quadragesima, which is the Latin word for forty. The Lenten season lasts 40 days to symbolize the 40 days Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert after he was baptized by John the Baptist, according to catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.